The 50th Biennial Conference of the National Association of the Deaf, Philadelphia, PA
July 9th, 2011
The first thing that I notice yesterday when I enter Franklin Meeting Room Four on the third floor of the Marriott Hotel in Philadelphia, at the 50th Biennial Conference for the National Association of the Deaf, is the deaf, blind woman with white hair and sunglasses sitting in the corner. She is about sixty-five years old and wears a khaki-colored aviator-style jacket with a black, cotton shirt beneath it. She is facing the door, although the speaker on stage, who is discussing making drive-thru services accessible to the deaf community, is behind her.
The person who is actually facing the speaker on stage is, instead, the interpreter for the deaf, blind woman. The interpreter is listening to the speaker and using her hands and the hands of the deaf, blind woman to communicate. There is an intricate choreography of movement between the hands of the interpreter and the hands of the woman. The four hands are locked in an elegant dance of words as their fingers glide effortlessly over each other. This is the world of tactile signing. The receiver’s hands appear to be placed ever so lightly on the back of the hands of the other person who interprets.
The beautiful action of yesterday’s hands in motion reminds me of the intensely personal movement of Yo-Yo Ma’s hands when playing cello. Ma’s music is not only about, however, his virtuosity, but also his orientation to others. In an interview that Ma gave after he released his album, Songs of Joy & Peace, Ma comments on the track, Vassourinhos where he plays with Brazilian guitarists Sergio and Odair Assad.
In order to form a bond with the Brazilian musicians, Ma focuses on the “precision and intimacy of their sound” and Ma adjusts the “physical nature of playing in order to blend with their sounds.” Ma’s desire to achieve harmony with his fellow musicians echoes the precision and intimacy that the interpreter appears to reach for in communicating with the deaf, blind woman. For the interpreter, who smiles often while interpreting, her time at the biennial convention must be a labor of love. Similarly, for Sergio Assad who collaborates with Ma, there is a pleasure of being with Ma and this gives Assad joy because “you share good moments” and “this is what life is about.”
What animates Ma’s and Assad’s work and what inspires all good work? When asked how Assad approaches the arrangement or transcription of a piece, he states: “I think the first thing is that I have to be in love with the piece.” Like Assad, the tactile sign language interpreter is in love with her vocation-she is helping the deaf, blind woman in the aviator jacket to understand the details contained within the ideas that are expressed in our complex world.
I attended many workshops at yesterday’s convention: accessibility of drive-thru windows; how to explain to certain deaf Americans the procedure for filing taxes on April 15th; and the sense of marginalization that the deaf community feels due to a dominant, American culture. The central lesson that I drew from the conference, however, is that, like Sergio Assad’s musical arrangements, you have to be in love with the piece to bring beautiful hues of harmony and melody to the world. In interpreting Assad’s assertion so that it can be understood in the world of deaf, legal services, I was reminded yesterday that you have to be in love with the great privilege that we have as Americans to promote access to, and equality under, the law; then, justice and beauty will follow.
All the best,
Bruce J. Gitlin
Founder and Executive Director
New York Center for Law and Justice
New York, NY 10023